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Notes from the Unrepenitentiary

Over the past 14+ years of my incarceration, I've been asked repeatedly to describe how I'm treated differently from other prisoners because I'm a political prisoner. It's always been easy to answer, as examples abound. Now, as I approach my mandatory release date of August 6, yet another example has reared its ugly head: my halfway house (scheduled to begin last February) was denied by the higher echelons of the Bureau of Prisons. I was, they deemed, a "danger to the community" due to the "nature of my offense" - i.e., armed protest against racist and colonialist acts of the u.s. government.

What makes it clear that this is a political decision is that nowadays almost no one from women's federal prison is denied a halfway house. The system is so desperately overcrowded that women convicted of all kinds of violent acts get to finish their sentences in halfway houses.

For me, the denial is not particularly significant. I am fortunate to have generous community and family support to help me adjust to life in "minimum" once I'm released. But what is important is what the denial indicates: the continuing intransigence of the u.s. government towards left-wing political prisoners. Just in case we needed yet another reminder.

Unfortunately, we don't. The venom with which a TV interview with Assata Shakur, political exile in Cuba, was greeted by politicians in New Jersey; the vicious reaction of the law enforcement community to Mumia Abu-Jamal's appeal for a new trial; the lack of positive action on the petition for pardon of the 15 Puerto Rican Prisoners of War (who have served 19 years in prison, and whose petition for release is supported by thousands of Puerto Ricans and members of the progressive international community), or on the petition of Leonard Peltier (who has served 23 years and who has similar international support); the denial of parole to political prisoners like Sundiata Acoli, who has served over 26 years in prison - all of these serve as reminders every day that the u.s. abuses human rights. While countries around the world regularly release political prisoners singly and in groups, the u.s. won't budge. Not only do government officials refuse even to consider any kind of amnesty, they even refuse to allow the normal methods of release to apply to those of us who have served long sentences for left-wing political acts. This vindictive treatment of political prisoners is typical of the drive to repress that has resulted in a landscape dotted with razor-wire and prison walls, and a society whose children turn to guns to resolve every problem. Those who fight for the release of political prisoners are fighting for justice and a humane society.

On June 11, 1999, the Italian and u.s. governments announced that political prisoner Silvia Baraldini finally will be allowed to return to Italy to finish serving her prison sentence as provided by the Strasbourg Convention on treaty transfer. It as taken many years (Silvia has served 17 years so far) and the efforts of thousands of people in Italy and here to force the u.s. government to abide by the rules of international law as outlined in a treaty they signed. Not only Italy, but the entire European community struggled for this one. Congratulations to Silvia, her lawyer Liz Fink, and all those who have worked for her transfer. Silvia's strength and dignity in upholding her anti-racist and anti-imperialist principles have been at the core of the successful campaign to return her to Italy.

Since my mandatory release date can't be denied as my halfway house was, this will be my last column for PLN In the future, my dear comrades Linda Evans and Marilyn Buck will write this column. Before I relinquish my soapbox, I want to say a few words about PLN, its editors and staff.

I first saw PLN while I was in the hole, trying to challenge injustices in my own and other women's disciplinary cases. Unlike other newsletters, PLN had no rhetoric, made no false promises, but simply gave me exactly what I needed: the tools and guidance to seek remedy for my situation. And in every line there was an unwritten message of solidarity: we've been there we understand. Over the years, PLN as a magazine and its editors and staff have consistently proven themselves conscientious and generous. Operating from a shoestring, they've managed to provide more reliable and responsible support than many free world legal groups who have far greater resources.

Most importantly, PLN speaks with the authority of people who have suffered the hardships and know the system from inside - and continue to struggle. They practice daily the crucial message they quietly preach: we prisoners are the ones who must take our destinies in our own hands, helping ourselves and helping one another. By doing that, PLN's editors have managed to make prisoners, voices heard beyond the walls - a first step towards the change we so badly need. Thank you, Paul, Ed, and Dan; Thank you, Fred, Sandy, Matt, and all the wonderful PLN staff outside.

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